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In Our Waters – Burning Cold Aboard the Freighter Thames

The flickering of the amber light on the glass panes drew her attention away from her knitting. She placed the half-completed sweater down on her seat as she stood up and walked over to the window to take a closer look at the light. Her husband, though seated a few feet away, only slightly shifted in his chair and remained asleep and aloof. As the wife of the caretaker for the estate, she knew that the lights were out of the ordinary at that time of night. As she peered out the window the flickering lights appeared to be growing in their intensity. She called out for her husband to wake up. Startled by her call, he sat up and scampered to see what was going on. After only a few seconds, he retreated from the window and grabbed a pair of binoculars. As he returned, he adjusted them. Seconds later, without lowering the binoculars he calmly stated, “Call the police department. There is a ship on fire in the Sound,” he paused and then spoke again, “and it is headed straight for us.”
Patrolman Thomas Dean and two Sound Beach firemen, Arthur Schlagel and William Cuff, jumped into the rowboat off of the estate of Innis Arden, and quickly set out toward the floating pyre to render aid1. The evening’s sky was ablaze by the burning freighter, but it cast a darkness upon the waters of the Long Island Sound that rendered the waters black to the human eye. As they attempted to draw near, the lapping flames and intense heat hindered their efforts. Despite their attempts to locate any of the crew, the men were pushed away from the scene. Shortly after, the fire ravaged vessel’s light was augmented by the scanning beams of searchlights. Additional rescuers were arriving on the scene. Hopefully, Dean, Schlagel and Cuff discussed, the larger vessels, with their more adequate lifesaving equipment, would find the men from the burning vessel.

The steamers Lexington and New Bedford, who witnessed the fire, arrived on scene and lowered lifeboats to search for survivors. Shortly after, the two Sound steamboats were joined by the United States Coast Guard Patrol Boats #125 and #122. Unbeknownst to the bevy of quickly arriving rescue vessels, the bulk of the freighter’s crew of twenty-six men, had been able to escape the freighter before she had been entirely engulfed by the savagery of the wide-spread conflagration. What they also didn’t know is that both lifeboats had been capsized by the seas with the men cast into the frigid waters of the Long Island Sound. As the crisscrossing beams of light flickered across the frothy waters, the men fought valiantly to stay above the surface and to hail for help.
An hour earlier, approximately ten miles behind the freighter, Captain George W. Wilson was on the helm of the Alert, his oyster steamer, when he saw the first flickers of the fire in the distance. Wilson increased his engines to full speed. Despite full revolutions on his engines, the oyster steamer took over an hour to arrive amidst the mayhem of the scene. He and his crew immediately sprang into action as they could hear men screaming for help in the darkness. Suddenly, one of the Alert’s crew spotted a man in the water waving for help. Leroy Wilson, Wilson’s son, along with fellow crewman Hector McBicker, were able to secure a line around the barely conscious man. As they dragged him onto the deck of the Alert, he whispered “For God’s sake, don’t let me slip back.” The two crewmen took the chilled man below decks to warm up in the boiler room. They hurried back onto the main deck and continued to search for survivors.
Maneuvering the Alert through the rough seas, Captain Wilson banged his hands against the helm in frustration with the haphazard and uncoordinated scanning of the water by the cohort of rescue vessels. A cry was heard off the bow of the oyster steamer. Captain Wilson maneuvered into position and despite the efforts of him and his men, the drowning man’s hands slipped off the lifeline and his body slid beneath the surface. Captain Wilson and his men continued to search for over an hour. With little chance of finding anyone else and with the rest of the rescue vessels remaining on station or expanding their search area, Captain Wilson decided to continue on his course to his home port of Rockville Centre. Warmed by the boiler, the survivor joined Captain Wilson on the bridge of the oyster steamer. After thanking Captain Wilson and his crew for saving his life, Chief Engineer Clarence Tibbetts offered his observations of a rescue gone terribly awry.
When the fire broke out and quickly engulfed the Thames, the bulk of the crew abandoned ship in the two lifeboats.2 “We felt rescue was inevitable,” he continued, “and settled to wait for the rescuers. A few seconds later a terrific wave smashed our boat to pieces and the men were cast into the water. Even then we were sure they would find us.” Chief Engineer Tibbetts then explained that he and the men had been in the water over an hour as the rescue vessels churned through the water, their search lights, in his opinion, utilized in an uncoordinated effort. Several times, Tibbetts explained, light had shone right on him, only for it to be slowly cast away and leaving him bobbing in the chilled waters in the darkness. The Alert continued on its homeward passage with its survivor glad to be alive, but frustrated in how the Thames had gone down.3
While the Alert continued her voyage, Captain Robert J. Sherman, master of the Thames, was aboard the Lexington along with eight other survivors. Additional details of the last voyage of the freighter were coming to light amidst the fiery pyre grounded on the reef in the distance. “We left Pier 32 about 5:15 with a miscellaneous cargo,” he started. After a brief stop at Norwalk, the Thames encountered thirty mile an hour winds out of the northwest with rough seas. As they neared Captain’s Island, Captain Sherman was in the dining room finishing his evening meal. On the bridge was the pilot, Captain Lambert Hancourt. Suddenly, all hell broke loose aboard the freighter. Alerted to the smoke, Captain Sherman dashed to the boiler room and told the Chief Mate to start the pumps. Upon his arrival to the bridge, he coordinated his efforts with Captain Hancourt. They rang the engine room to slacken speed and attempted to blow the alarm whistle but the cord broke. “Fire was discovered around the smokestack,” he continued to explain. “At first it gave off a suffocating smoke, and then in a few minutes the blaze broke out all around the stack. So quickly did the fire gain headway that we were driven from the boat like rates within five minutes.”
Serving as the pilot, Captain Hancourt, unable to secure the engines, lashed the wheel so that the freighter would continue quarterly into the wind. Word passed quickly on the Thames to abandon ship. “There were two lifeboats aboard the Thames and plenty of life preservers,” Captain Sherman explained. “The lifeboats were put into the water one on each side, and, so as far as I know, every member of the crew got into a boat. I think I was the last man to leave the Thames. I had a life-preserver, but I cannot tell how many of the others had them. There were twelve men in our boat.” Though the two lifeboats had been lowered, the stormy conditions quickly capsized the boats and the men were tossed into the cold water. A small boat, launched from the Lexington pulled Captain Sherman aboard after being in the water nearly an hour. Captain Lambert Hancourt was not as lucky. Arriving at the other lifeboat he quickly realized it was at full capacity. Though the men encouraged him to get in, Captain Lambert instead leapt over the railing into the water.4 In the wake of the fire and abandoning of the freighter, a total of ten men of the crew of twenty-six were saved.
By dawn of the next day, United States Coast Guard Destroyers Porter and Ammen along with four seventy-five foot patrol boats, CG-122, CG-125, CG-231, and CG-241, were on scene and in the nearby waters off of the still fire-raging vessel.5 No attempts could be made to investigate aboard the Thames and search for the remains of any of the missing crew, so the Coastguardsmen kept their search to the still rough waters of the Long Island Sound. The final tally of those unaccounted for included Captain Lambert Hancourt, the pilot, John McNamara, assistant engineer, Henry Allen, first mate, two mess men, Warren Le Barge and William Anderson, and eleven deckhands. The prospects of finding any of the sixteen men alive were virtually impossible due to the nature of the fire and the sea conditions.
Meanwhile, Dickerson N. Hoover, serving as the Chief of the Steamboat Inspection Service, ordered a full investigation into the horrific situation. If criminal negligence was uncovered, he explained, those who were responsible would be held accountable. On April 28, 1930, an inquiry commenced at the Federal Building in New Haven, Connecticut. Under the supervision of A.R. Chapman and H.C. Colgin, inspectors of hulls and boilers respectively, the inquiry began with testimony provided by both Captain Sherman and Chief Engineer Tibbetts. Sadly, little could be ascertained by the two men as to the cause of the fire. In the wake of the investigation the only solace was that the death toll could have been potentially higher.6 Over the course of the following weeks and months, the Long Island Sound gave up only some of her dead. By the middle of June, a total of nine of the sixteen had been recovered.7 Seven bodies were never recovered. Solace, mind you, only for those who survived.
The fire aboard the Thames had been lightning quick. Captain Hancourt, acting as pilot, was hamstrung under the horrific circumstances of the situation and acted in his most professional manner to try and save the ship. Though unsuccessful, he managed to assist Captain Sherman and the officers and crew of the Thames escape the fire to the lifeboats, foregoing his own potential rescue by not overloading the boats, which ultimately cost him his own life.8 The sixteen lost, most of whom were caught below decks in the fast-moving fire, had little chance of survival under the terrible circumstances. Tragically, the capsizing of the lifeboats amidst the rough seas, spelled death for those who had survived being burned alive aboard only to drown cold within sight of the rescuers in our waters.
1 The Innis Arden estate had been built by John Kennedy Tod and his wife Mary Howard Potter. Tod, a Scotsman, after a successful career as a rugby player, attended Princeton University. Post college, he joined his uncle in banking where he was very successful. The estate, located on Sound Beach, now known as Old Greenwich, Connecticut, is now a public park.
2 The Thames, originally named the City of Gloucester, had been built by J.D. Leary Shipbuilders in Brooklyn, New York in 1883. She was one hundred and forty-two feet in length and had a forty-two foot beam. She had been renamed Thames in 1927 and was owned by the Thames River Line.
3 Captain Wilson was later interviewed about his part of the rescue. “I have spent 35 years on the sea but I have never seen such a tragedy. I will remember it as long as I live. I can still hear the screams of the drowning men.”
4 When learning that her husband did not enter a lifeboat, Mrs. Hancourt related that her husband, and the father of their two children, was a poor swimmer. She was doubtful that he survived the ordeal. Captain Hancourt had been one of the most well-known pilots in Connecticut.
5 The bulk of the rescue fleet that responded to the Thames disaster had been on prohibition patrols off Block Island and in the Long Island Sound.
6 Chief Engineer Tibbetts was saved by the crew of the Alert. The remaining survivors were pulled from the waters of the Long Island Sound by officers and crewmen of the steamer Lexington. Those survivors included Captain Sherman, Frederick Shelle, Second Mate, Louis Hubbell, First Assistant Engineer, Walter Brown, oiler, Atilano Martas and Emil Salguero, both Firemen, and James Powers, Robert Smith, and A.B. Brown, all deckhands.
7 The bodies were discovered starting in early June, most likely with the warming of the waters of the Long Island Sound. Bodies were found off of Playland Beach, off Island Beach, on Hawthorne Beach, and on Pine Island. Warren Le Barge, Second Mate, was found in the waters off of Greenwich, Connecticut.
8 On July 23, 1930, the surviving officers and crew of the Thames disaster were formally exonerated by the Coroner of Bridgeport, Connecticut. “The findings said Hancourt went to his death by accident and not through any criminal act or negligence on the part of any one.”